Grant to Help Brain Scientists Dig Deeper into Detecting Deception

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Social interactions, such as navigating a conversation or determining whether someone is being truthful or not, are some of the most complex tasks the brain carries out, yet little is understood about the social brain on a neurobiological level.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Biotechnology Office awarded scientists at the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas a $401,000 grant to develop a method that would map and quantify aspects of the social brain. Researchers will investigate deception using imaging technology and advanced mathematical analysis to quantify its brain-basis. The study will incorporate the impact of cultural differences, an aspect increasingly relevant to military intelligence gathering operations.

“Previous studies indicate that individuals accurately judge someone as truthful only 54 percent of the time,” said study principal investigator Dr. Daniel Krawczyk, associate professor at UT Dallas and the Debbie and Jim Francis Chair in BrainHealth at the Center for BrainHealth. “There is some evidence to suggest that we might actually have a better chance at correctly assessing whether someone is telling the truth or not using intuition rather than deliberate thought. These implicit, often rapid judgments we typically associate with intuition must exist at some level in the brain and are exactly what we are trying to capture.”

The pilot study will include 50 volunteers who will review video scenarios of people telling lies or truths while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The research team will assess brain patterns when an individual is observing lies or truths, and when an individual is perceiving someone as trustworthy or untrustworthy. The researchers will examine whether cultural difference among the test subjects affect the ability of people to recognize these two types of deception.

The researchers will utilize a computerized, advanced mathematical approach called multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) to assess the brain patterns.

“MVPA is a particularly useful analysis for this problem because we think that multiple brain areas will be involved in making subtle estimates of trust from faces. Adding to this, the problem of making trust judgments cross-culturally, will further complicate the brain’s task,” said co-principal investigator Dr. Alice O’Toole, Aage and Margareta Møller Professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “MVPA has an important advantage over other kinds of functional neuroimaging analyses in that it can detect differences in brain patterns, above and beyond simple differences in the strength of the neural response.”

Traditionally, social engagement measurement tools have been qualitative in nature with self-reports and surveys.

“Of utmost importance is demonstrating not who is lying or who is not trustworthy, but that we can use this method to decode the social brain. Past imaging data analysis has compared brain activity levels in different brain regions or in different conditions under the false assumption that brain regions operate independently from one another,” said Leanne Young, Center for BrainHealth research assistant who is working on the study. “Our thought is that if we can use more sophisticated, complex mathematics, we will be able to decode brain behaviors during very complex social situations and provide a base for the quantitative data that DARPA seeks.”

“There is nothing more important than our ability to interact socially,” said study collaborator Dr. James Bartlett, interim dean of the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “If we can map what is happening at a neural level and tie those patterns to an individual’s thoughts or actions in a healthy brain, we believe we will eventually have the ability to use that information to drive therapeutic treatments for various social impairments such as autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and others.”

The results of this study may help DARPA effectively measure the complex social aspects of military training and operations in environments where social intelligence is critical for cross-cultural awareness, interactions and, ultimately, survival.

This material is based upon work supported by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, Pacific, under Award No. N66001-15-1-4037.  Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, Pacific.

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